Ukraine and the UN: An Institutional Inability to Act

Anna Quinn, Loyola University Maryland:

Last week, in an uncontested vote, the UN’s General Assembly elected five countries to take their turn in the Security Council. Japan, Senegal, Ukraine, Uruguay and Egypt will replace Chad, Chile, Jordan, Lithuania and Nigeria for a two-year term beginning in January of 2016.

In the week since the election, the vote has been the subject of countless headlines musing on the possible “fireworks” that might erupt between Ukraine and permanent Security Council member Russia. As the global community has been witness to, Ukraine has been the site of turmoil between two warring factions—those that want to align the country with the European Union, and those that wish to keep ties close with Russia. This has resulted in violent protests, the toppling of leaders, and physical and political intervention by neighboring Russia. Foreign Minister of the new rotating member, Pavlo Klimkin, commented that he views his country’s new status as an opportunity to fight back—politically, that is—against “the ongoing Russian aggression” in Ukraine. Klimkin also noted his pride in the 177 votes his country received as a “sign of world solidarity with Ukraine.” His supposed optimism, however, seems out of place—if not naïve—considering the history of Ukraine’s conflict and the UN.

The very same Security Council that now welcomes Ukraine into its voting ranks has essentially ignored the country during its downward spiral into virtual civil war. The UN Security Council, as stated by its own website, has the:

Primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace…[and] takes the lead in determining the existence of a threat to peace or act of aggression. In some cases, the Security Council can resort to imposing sanctions or even authorize the use of force to maintain or restore international peace and security.

Once again, according to the UN itself, however, the conflict in Ukraine has resulted in about 8,000 deaths. BBC reports that protests even escalated to the worst day of violence in almost 70 years for the city of Kiev where 88 were reported dead in only 48 hours on February 20, 2014. And at the center of the crisis, of course, lies the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Despite the obvious lack of peace in the region, and the clear “act of aggression” by Russia, the Security Council remains in deadlock. While the UN has participated in over 30 conversations about possible action, the most notable proposals have been vetoed by Russia—one of the five permanent members with veto power. In 2014, for instance, the interim President of Ukraine Oleksandr Turchinov appealed to the UN to send peacekeepers to his nation and was essentially answered with silence. One of the only resolutions that did manage to pass from March 2014 called for nations not to accept the Crimean referendum, which led to its Russian annexation. However this resolution has still been criticized for simply “smacking more of propaganda and public relations and doing absolutely nothing to resolve the crisis.” Essentially it seems like the only international institution with the authority to take legal action or intervene has only been able to discuss taking legal action or intervening.

Although, there is arguably not much that can be done about this gridlock seeing as its roots lie in the structure of the Council itself. While the UN is meant to stop violations of human rights and threats to international peace, the question remains, what happens when the threat comes from one of the members given the ultimate decision-making authority? Alexander Nekrassov, a former government advisor argues in his Aljazeera article that this is exactly what makes the UN inept to do its job in times of conflict. To him, the Ukraine crisis is simply a reminder of “how useless the United Nations is when it could’ve, should’ve, would’ve done more every time.” With ample examples like the Rwandan genocide, the Iraq war, Libya’s descent into a “hellhole,” and the Syrian civil war, Nekrassov argues the UN is “not fit for its purpose anymore.”

Perhaps the question then lies in what exactly is the purpose of the United Nations. Their mission, clearly stated in their charter from 1945, is to “maintain international peace and security…develop friendly relations among nations…achieve international cooperation in solving international problems…and encouraging respect for human rights.” This may seem to be a straightforward purpose, but in fact, it depends upon how each goal is qualified and defined. With 196 member states, it is safe to assume that not all nations view these objectives in exactly the same way—the five most influential states certainly do not. Erik Voeten’s article in The Washington Post examines two speeches made by President Obama and President Putin on the same day, September 28th, at the United Nations. Voeten reveals that two distinct views of international relations were expressed in their addresses—Obama follows the liberal theory, while Putin follows the realist worldview:

To Putin, the UN is a venue where states can cooperate against common threats, like terrorism, but that refrains from intruding in the domestic affairs of states and that stands aside when states can’t agree. By contrast, Obama portrays the UN as a centerpiece to a liberal international order that espouses respect for international law, human rights and democracy.

In other words, Obama believes the purpose of the UN should be to promote and encourage a certain set of ideals, namely those of democracy. While, on the other hand, Putin seems to classify the “international problems” in the UN charter, for which states should cooperate and collaborate, as only those that affect all nations. Obama sees the UN as a body that should actively attempt to “better” the international community, while Putin views it as a kind of back-up institution that shouldn’t be placed above a states own autonomy, and shouldn’t be used unless absolutely necessary. In this sense, Obama would argue that the UN has failed its duties in regards to the Ukraine crisis, but Putin would see no shortcoming.

It is important to understand both of these narratives when evaluating the effectiveness of the UN, especially when it comes to the current crisis in Ukraine. For one, determining how effective the institution is depends on how its purpose is defined. If the narrative of Putin’s realism is assumed, did the UN really do anything wrong by not intervening in the Ukraine crisis? However, if Obama’s liberal view is applied, why did the UN fail to do its job? But maybe even more importantly, the fact that major players in the UN have such competing views of its goals can be seen as an explanation for its seeming inability to act. The states with the most power all aiming for different goals illuminates why the ultimate destination has been nowhere. In either case, the issues facing the Security Council appear to be rooted deeper than simple structural problems. The inherent differences in ideology—and the overall vast differences in the member states goals, among other features—mean that the addition of Ukraine to the Security Council will likely have no bearing on the continued gridlock of the institution to take major action not just in Ukraine, but on the most prevalent conflicts of the day.

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